Ben Sigmund enjoys contributing something back to the game in the region where he grew up. Sam Patchett reports.
All Whites and Wellington Phoenix defender Ben Sigmund admits he is thinking about retirement all the time, but reckons he still has "another year or two" left in his 33-year-old legs.
Sigmund, who made his annual pilgrimage to Marlborough on Saturday and Sunday to promote football in the region, admits he is of the age most athletes ponder retirement, but believes he still has gas left in the tank.
"We started pre-season recently and I'm still keeping up with all the young boys so I think I still have another year or two left in the legs," he said. "But to be honest, I think about [retirement] all the time. You think how much longer you can keep going for, you keep saying, ‘am I good enough to keep playing'? So there's always things that go through your head."
Born in Blenheim and still with family ties in Marlborough, Sigmund visits the region annually to support the game locally. He believes modern professional footballers don't put enough effort into supporting younger generations and growing the game in smaller towns such as Blenheim, so enjoyed the opportunity to revisit his roots.
Sigmund spent Saturday and Sunday attending junior and senior matches, signing autographs, training with the region's up-and-coming players and hosting a breakfast for young footballers.
"It's been really good watching footballers growing up [in Marlborough]," he said. "One thing I keep saying is to never forget where you come from and I've always wanted to make sure I keep giving back to the community."
Sigmund has enjoyed an illustrious career in the beautiful game. Debuting for the All Whites against Oman 14 years ago, the defender has played 31 matches for his country, including a World Cup campaign in South Africa four years ago. The 2011/2012 A-League season was a stellar year, when he won the Phoenix's Players' Player, Members' Player, Media Player and Sony Player of the Year awards.
As the Fifa World Cup is played out in Brazil, Sigmund said the All Whites' World Cup journey in 2009 and 2010 signified both highs and lows in his career. A career highlight was being part of the All Whites' successful qualification for the World Cup in South Africa, a campaign clinched in November 2009 with a 1-0 win over Bahrain in front of 35,000 fans in Wellington. However, he said the finals themselves were a tough time for him as a player.
"I played all nine qualifiers to get to South Africa and then didn't actually play at the World Cup because Winston Reid and Tommy Smith came into the team," he explained. "So it was actually a tougher time for me than it was good … it was just very tough because obviously you want to play. But at the end of the day, everyone goes through their ups and downs in their careers and good players actually deal with all that sort of stuff."
He said attending the World Cup was still a "huge experience in its own way" and he remembered it for a number of reasons.
"The scariest part was that everywhere you go there were guards. You were a bit worried about what they were going to do, some of them had machine-guns. But it was so well-run and the security was top-notch so you're just there doing your job, really."
Despite political and facility concerns ahead of this year's tournament in Brazil, the event has also gone smoothly with enthralling on-field action captivating fans' attention. The average of almost three goals per match is unusually high, and Sigmund said that as a defender he enjoyed seeing teams find the back of the net.
"The way the modern game is, it's a lot more attacking football now. So it does open up defence a little bit more. As long as you're scoring more goals than the other team, the coach is happy."
With stars such as Neymar [Brazil], Lionel Messi [Argentina] and Luis Suarez [Uruguay] dominating headlines in Brazil, Sigmund said he doesn't mind the finishers stealing the attention in football.
"I quite like being kept quiet. Everyone sort of leaves you alone [in defence] and the expectations are all on the strikers. I just like doing my job and doing it well rather than worrying about who gets talked about. The only thing I wish I got was [a striker's] pay packet," he said with a smile.
As in any World Cup, many players have been going to ground easily in an effort to win free kicks and penalties. Sigmund, known for his no-nonsense attitude, believes diving is an irritating blemish on the sport.
"I think it ruins the game," he said.
"The South Americans are very good at it and it just gets frustrating. But it's not going to go away, it's bred in them. They'll do anything to win and they don't think any different of it so you can talk about it all you want but it's always going to be there."
With the World Cup just days away from knockout stages, the All Whites defender believed the host nation were struggling and he would like to see an underdog succeed.
"I'd like to say Chile would win it. They're exciting and they break forward really fast. Defensively they might struggle but their attacking flair is top-notch. But to be honest, if you're a betting man, you'd probably go Netherlands or a team like that."